By Sam Tran

When the world celebrated the arrival of 2020, it was not yet clear that a new disease had begun circulating in mainland China. Few governments paid attention to COVID-19 until cases overwhelmed the surprisingly fragile public health infrastructure. By then it was too late, but what more might politicians and public servants have done to slow the spread? In the past, policymakers could intervene with a limited set of options: taxes to discourage unwanted behavior, like smoking cigarettes; subsidies to incentivize certain actions, such as having children; and mandates or bans that make compliance compulsory, like getting required vaccines for school. Today, however, more can be and has been done.

The policymaker’s playbook has expanded in the early 21st century to include insights from disciplines as varied as cognitive psychology and product design. The proliferation of behavioral nudges, deliberative democracy, and civic design demonstrates a growing interest in alternative, more experimentalist approaches to policy design and implementation. This paper examines the tensions inherent in the way each views citizen engagement, considers how they might apply to wicked problems like the pandemic, identifies some limiting factors, and explores possible combinations of the traditional and new.

Behavioral Nudges

Thaler and Sunstein (2008) popularized the concept of nudges, introducing them as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviors in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” A nudge rearranges possible choices and environments in an attempt to influence better decision-making. It harnesses insights from behavioral economics to achieve desired outcomes by working in concert with the mind’s mental shortcuts. Nudges prevent cognitive overload in a world full of choice. Popular policy applications include saving for retirement, making healthier food choices, and reducing energy consumption (Clark et al., 2019; Cadario & Chandon, 2020; Schubert, 2017).

The key insight behind nudges comes from the famous distinction between system 1 and system 2 thinking (Kahneman, 2011). System 1 thinking relies on hunches, heuristics, patterns, instinct, and emotions – reasoning by analogy, in a way. System 2 thinking, by contrast, requires sustained effort, careful consideration, mental models, logical analysis. Humans navigate the world using both systems, often deploying system 1 for quick judgments and system 2 for major life decisions. Nudges take advantage of system 1 processes where traditional policy tools like taxation and regulation rely on system 2 for effectiveness. A nudge reduces compliance costs even as it increases the adoption of socially desirable behaviors.

Critics of nudge theory challenge it on two grounds. Some question whether the practice is ethical (Selinger & Whyte, 2011). Nudges may appear sensible to the technocrat in a democratic society, but how might nudges be weaponized by autocratic or oppressive governments? By itself a nudge has few ideological commitments. Thaler and Sunstein defend nudges as a tool that both political parties in the United States can get behind, but the charges of manipulation and corruption remain hard to shake off. The choice architect sits in a privileged position of power, and this can reinforce the distance between the one nudging and the one being nudged. In other words, a citizen is seen as an object to be acted upon, and citizen engagement has little place in the bigger policy equation thanks to a litany of cognitive biases.

The second objection concerns nudging’s ability to achieve substantive change. A nudge toward one outcome can easily be replaced by another in the opposite direction (Goodwin, 2012). While nudges may lower the cost of implementation, the desired effect may not be as strong or as long lasting as proponents might hope. It also narrows the focus too much on individual behavior, a product of its roots in psychology, and largely fails to acknowledge group or cultural norms. In Strassheim’s (2021) view, “some of the failures and side effects of nudging and other behavioral change strategies are a direct outcome of the methodological and conceptual shortcomings of an undersocialized perspective.” As more policies rely on nudges for success, the robust debate in the academic literature is bound to continue.

Nudges have featured prominently in the pandemic response toolkit. In Tokyo, “nudge-based messages increased users’ avoidance of closed spaces, crowded spaces, and close contact during the weekends” (Moriwaki et al., 2020). In another study, two nudges – the status quo bias and peer influence – increased American support for a vaccine pass (Sotis et al., 2021). But others have found mixed results. Researchers in Denmark failed to see an uptick in hand hygiene after using both the salience and gain frame nudges (Weijers & de Koning, 2021). The UK government was roundly criticized for an overreliance on nudges in the early stages of the pandemic (Yates, 2020; Choudhury, 2021). As a whole, nudges seem to work better as a complement rather than as the primary means of driving change.

Deliberative Democracy

Out of political theory emerges another approach: deliberative democracy. This concept “holds that citizens, given the right context and framing, can think themselves collectively towards a better understanding of problems and more effective collective solutions, avoiding thereby a narrow focus on their short term self-interest” (John et al., 2009). Sunstein further defines and clarifies the term in a later paper. “A deliberative democracy would emphasize the importance of reflection and reason-giving. A deliberative democracy would stress the importance of popular control” (Sunstein, 2017). It is possible to have deliberation without democracy, as well as a democracy without deliberation. Only the combination, what John et al. label think, validates policies as by the people and for the people.

This idea draws on some earlier thinking introduced by Ostrom on co-production. This is “the process through which inputs used to produce a good or service are contributed by individuals who are not ‘in’ the same organization” (Ostrom, 1996). In both deliberative democracy and co-production, one finds the citizen actively engaged as a contributor to the public good. The citizen shapes the system as much as the system shapes the citizen. And its orientation toward community rebuilds a thicker kind of relationship often lamented as disappearing.

A popular example of deliberative democracy arises from Porto Alegre, Brazil, the home of participatory budgeting. Long before the World Bank gave participatory budgeting its best practice imprimatur, it “emerged out of a combination of experimentation, responses to external pressures, and a search for legitimacy” (Heller & Rao, 2015). Its distinctive characteristic, open participation by individual citizens in the public budgeting process, resulted from the political capture and illegitimacy of civil society, as opposed to a purposeful design choice. The idea nonetheless received widespread attention as a successful technical solution, and governments around the world, funded by international financial institutions, soon began to study, copy, and adapt the Porto Alegre model – with less impressive results.

This notion of deliberative democracy is especially attractive when compared to the sharp divisions between political actors today. But a think approach requires a lot of pre-conditions to succeed. The mix of participants ought to be truly representative of the population (Lerner & Secondo, 2012). The implementation must not falter as “one-off experiments” with no follow up or sustained engagement (Levine & Soltan, 2014). The process should not yield to capture by political elites (Lund & Saito-Jensen, 2013). Otherwise, the full benefits of deliberative democracy cannot be realized.

At first glance, deliberative democracy seems antithetical to timely decision making in crises like the pandemic. For instance, New York State did not consult its longstanding Task Force on Life and the Law for public health decisions related to COVID-19 (Fins, 2021). But that has proven to be an outlier, even in the United States. In Maryland and Texas, researchers deployed deliberative methods to allocate scarce medical resources in an ethical and local values-sensitive way (Schoch et al., 2020). Elsewhere, the Netherlands consulted 30,000 citizens on eight possible options for relaxing pandemic restrictions (Mouter et al, 2021). Instead of suppressing participation, a crisis may in fact increase engagement in deliberative democracy and give voice to those who otherwise have little recourse or agency.

Civic Design

The origins of civic design can be traced back to design thinking, itself inspired in part by product design. David Kelley, the founder of creative consulting firm IDEO, promoted the idea that design principles could be applied to other contexts and even non-products. As a result, businesses, nonprofits, and governments began to adopt design thinking frameworks, “incorporating constituent or consumer insights in depth and rapid prototyping, all aimed at getting beyond the assumptions that block effective solutions” (Brown & Wyatt, 2010). This eventually spawned a new range of disciplines, from service design to co-design – both of which have made inroads into public policy.

Einfeld and Blomkamp (2021) unpack the concept of design broadly as “a range of visual and tactile modes of expression and communication (such as collages, model building and role playing), aiming to reveal knowledge, that is non-verbal, holistic, emotional or intuitive, and which may not be uncovered by other methods.” This emphasis on iterative testing and discovery sets civic design apart from the other two approaches. Service design involves “the activity of working out which of these pieces [of the different parts of government] need to fit together, asking how well they meet user needs, and rebuilding them from the ground up so that they do” (Downe, 2016; Trippe, 2021). As for co-design, participants work alongside civic designers to identify assumptions, develop prototypes, and scale successful interventions. It is a hands-on approach that directly engages citizens in policy creation and implementation, whereas service design restructures the internal processes of government agencies to deliver programs more effectively, but both share the same assumptions.

Any criticism of civic design must account for the type of design that policymakers adopt. A service designer can suffer from the same cognitive biases that nudging uses to great effect, or risk sampling a non-representative group, though it is possible to mitigate that concern with crowdsourced solutions (Mount et al., 2020). A co-designer, by contrast, includes the lived experience of constituents directly on the design team, although it can be perceived as tokenistic if not done thoughtfully (Einfeld & Blomkamp, 2021). As a result, civic design and deliberative democracy face similar challenges in terms of power dynamics and equity.

Civic design is particularly well suited for complex challenges like a pandemic. The City of Orlando saw individual satisfaction scores jump by 45% thanks to an award-winning digital city hall project (Service to the Citizen, 2021). In Germany, service designers worked with healthcare providers to remotely support children with type 1 diabetes and their caregivers (Braune et al., 2021). In Japan, co-design led to the creation of DIY face shields for healthcare workers (Tsuda & Sakuragi, 2020). And in the UK, co-design resulted in a comic about COVID-19 as part of a “graphic medicine” strategy (Priego, 2021). The value of civic design comes in its explicit recognition that better solutions surface with experimentation and refinement.

On Time, Money, and Context

In moments of crisis, three factors play a largely hidden and underappreciated role in limiting action. The first of these is time. As demonstrated in Lipsky’s work on street-level bureaucrats and Mullainathan and Shafir comparisons between the time and money-poor, policymakers must make complex decisions quickly with limited information. This requires excellent situational judgment, forces compromises and tradeoffs, and needs to be clearly communicated. It affects the efficacy of both traditional and alternative policy tools, but the costs to enforce traditional methods are higher for these blunter, less responsive instruments. A nudge is easier to deploy than a mandate, while deliberative democracy and civic design enlist constituents as active stakeholders in both design and implementation.

A second resource is money. In the first few weeks of lockdown, for instance, Mayor de Blasio of New York City cut two billion out of the municipal budget and redirected funds to “health, safety, food and shelter” (Rizzi, 2020). This was hardly an isolated incident, nor confined to the early days of the pandemic. A recent report noted that “more than 100 countries face cuts to public spending on health, education and social protection as the Covid-19 pandemic compounds already high levels of debt” (Dehghan, 2021). Even crises that are not as prolonged can strain the public sector’s budgets, and it may account for some of the growing interest in more cost-effective and participatory approaches.

The third factor is context. A pandemic fits the classic definition of a wicked problem, its size and scale exceeding any single institution’s ability to respond. In times of uncertainty, a proven solution in another context appears very attractive, but one cannot design or implement policy in a vacuum without acknowledging the differences in context. For participatory budgeting and other interventions labeled successes and best practices, the tools are often packaged as a panacea when a whole range of interventions ought to be considered or attempted. It is beyond the scope of the paper to give a thorough treatment of all the ways context limits the use of nudges, deliberative democracy, or civic design, but a few key determinants include the nature of the crisis, the complexity of the problem, the existing mechanisms for public participation and feedback, and the capacity and authority of specific agencies to act in the situation.

Underlying Issues

The philosophical foundations of nudging, deliberative democracy, and civic design differ greatly. A nudge tends to “assume that individuals are fixed in their preferences and in the way they make decisions” (John et al., 2009). Since little can be done about cognitive bias, the nudging proponent accepts it as part of the environment and shapes interventions from there. By contrast, deliberative democracy argues that preferences can change as citizens reflect together. This places a greater demand on participants, but one that may be welcomed as a way to boost the capacity of the citizenry. And co-design is meant to “flatten hierarchies, order existing knowledge, and consequently problematize conventional approaches to policymaking,” a much more radical kind of approach in its purest form (Einfeld & Blomkamp, 2021).

A common thread ties all three approaches, however: they “can be seen as a response to the contingencies created by our bounded rationality” (John et al., 2009). A nudge accepts that rationality has its limits and works as if it were an unchanging variable. The approach of deliberative democracy is to reduce the effects of bounded rationality by introducing different perspectives. In civic design, active learning through prototypes forms a kind of experiential and regular feedback loop, where failing fast and often can result in viable solutions.

This has not stopped scholars from attempting to reconcile the approaches. One article argues that “citizens must also be empowered as their own choice architects in order to satisfy basic principles of democratic legitimacy and to help build long-term civic capacity at the individual and institutional level” (Button, 2018). Another presents a new theoretical framework for nudges that encourage reflection. In this “nudge plus” approach, bureaucrats remain in control of policy design, but citizens gain more agency to deliberate on the nudges they receive (John and Stoker, 2019). And Einfeld and Blomkamp (2021) suggest a hypothetical where governments co-design nudges alongside citizens.

This paper takes a different view: the philosophical foundations are untenably different. Nudges view citizens as objects, whose preferences and desires are inevitably affected by cognitive bias. Deliberative democracy treats citizens as contributors, helping to make crucial decisions for the community. A service designer views citizens as customers and wishes to improve access to and coordination of government programs. And a co-designer sees the citizen as creator, making and implementing policy alongside policymakers. These values cannot be harmonized without a clash of values and a yielding of one approach to another.

In practice, however, the consequences are relatively modest. Each of these approaches have valuable applications and may be useful depending on the time, money, and context. One can even imagine a scenario where a citizen assembly gives feedback and design input to nudges for social distancing during frontline healthcare workers’ interactions with the public. The alternatives may also complement traditional methods, as in the case of nudges to encourage compliance with mask mandates, or serve as a valuable channel for community buy-in. As humans shift between system 1 and system 2 thinking, it makes sense that policy interventions follow accordingly. It may seem like a contradiction, but this most resembles the reality of policymaking.


This paper has considered three relatively new policy instruments that have seen significant purchase during the COVID-19 pandemic: nudges, deliberative democracy, and civic design. Each possesses certain advantages for policymakers and addresses particular aspects of human behavior. Each concedes the challenges posed by bounded rationality and offer their own solutions to the problem. Instead of attempting to reconcile the philosophies and disciplines that gave them to policymakers, or discarding some in favor of others, this paper suggests that practitioners benefit from embracing the seeming contradictions; identifying appropriate uses based on the time, money, and context; experimenting with applications; and leveraging their relative strengths to implement better policy.

Samuel Tran is an interdisciplinary design thinker dedicated to the common good. He is  currently pursuing an Executive MPA at NYU Wagner and University College London, where he serves as the lead department rep and on staff with The Wagner Review. His interests include government innovation, global cities, and good food.


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